Thursday, December 19, 2013

Two 19-year-olds flew to Paris...

It was just past midnight, Washington, D.C.-time, and we wanted to celebrate New Year's Eve. Bad enough that we hit the flight-attendant call button and asked for champagne.

"Non," she said.

"But it's midnight, in America. It's New Year's..." we said.

Tsh tsh tsh. In that weird, almost harsh shush of disapproval. "It's 5 in the morning in France. You missed it..."

"Please," we begged. "We're 19. We can't have champagne at home, but we can on the plane. Just one toast...."

She brought us 2 glasses.

That is when my friendship with Phatiwe began. We were flying to Paris for our foreign study program in Lyon. It was New Year's Eve. She flew from Boston to D.C. Me from Philadelphia. It was the first thing we ever did together. We had mutual friends before the trip. Had spent time together. Parties. What not.

We had found out we were going on the same program in France and decided to fly together. It seemed like the thing to do.

We arrived at 7 a.m. on a frozen holiday morning. Paris was glistening with frost and asleep. Our room was not ready. Others met us, but by the time they arrived, she and I were a thing. Four of us shared bunk beds in a Trocadero Ibis hotel. She took such long showers. Everyone was confused. We ate cheese. We drank wine in cafes. A Nigerian man who said he was on a professional soccer team tried to take me home with him to smoke a shisha.

She didn't let me go.

Always the smart one, that girl.

We got to Lyon and my family, who spoke no English, who took me in to fill avoid in their own family left when their eldest daughter went to college in Germany, they picked me up in a small car. Tossed my suitcase in the back. Were proper. Reserved. Msr. Humbert bumped the shit out of the bumpers on the cars around his when he parked. "That's how we do it here," he said, seeing my shock.

Americans never park like that.

Phatiwe's family luxuriated in her English. They went skiing, they had dinner parties, they were like a firecracker of bravado, mispronounced-English and hugs.

Les Humberts had a wood-paneled receiving room. My bed was remade every day. She ironed my underwear. But every night. At first. We sat with the dictionary at the table. I was their American, and by God. I was going to speak French.

Mme. woke me every morning about five minutes before my alarm (I had told her my wake-up plan...) and told me it was time for my shower. She, meanwhile, went into the kitchen and made me a bowl of chickory coffee and tartines. (After a month of hungry during which I dropped 10 pounds, I also got a peeled clementine. Sectioned. On its own plate.) She would sit in her bath robe, speaking with me in French every morning while I had breakfast before sending me off to class.

I still remember her shaggy robe. Her pixie haircut. Her gentle wrinkled eyes. The way she held her hands while she talked to me. She spoke slowly. It was morning. But it was still her job to teach me.

When she was dressed, she worse skirts, stockings. Cardigans with gold buttons. Scarves. Always lipstick.

One time she took me to get my hair cut, my ability to communicate how I wanted that done was still poor. And I wound up with a fluffy bob. "Tellment feminine!" she exclaimed, showing me off.

Another time their friends came over to play bridge. They paraded me around. "Look, this our American. She speaks so well!" And they made me talk with all their friends.

Pierre-Yves and Pauline taunted me at dinner every night.

This is why I learned French. A very kind family took me in and made me one of their own. Thought it was their job. To make sure I left really knowing. They were wonderful.

We wrote sometimes afterward. But I was a student. I was lazy and felt awkward. Embarrassed to feel things for these people who gave me a home.

I just looked up our old address on Google Street View. We were above a chocolate shop. I came out the gate and passed windows where men made chocolate chateaus, elegant towers, Noah's Ark... out of chocolate. We smiled and waved every morning as I walked off to the bus I took to school.

Phatiwe and I hated the cafeteria. Shitty faux baguettes with thick unmelted slices of brie, pizza with gummy cheese and black olives that Karen (she who would not eat) ate by scraping her long fingernail across the cheese and then licking the nail. It was like watching a train hitting a wall. Watching a hungry girl choose to starve.

She was beautiful though, and we liked her. But we had no idea what to do. At 19.

So Phatiwe, Josh and I went to Moroccan cous cous restaurants and had cheap lunch feasts. We had about $6 a day for lunch (30 francs, back when those were a thing) and for that, when we pooled our resources, we could get a big pot of meat and vegetables to pour over cous cous. On those days we gorged ourselves. Mostly we at the sad baguettes.

A few times, just a few, she and I went to lunch at proper brasseries. A splurge. We had a few 6 franc cafeteria pizzas to afford a 50 franc lunch with croque monsieurs, frites and a pot du vin blanc. One time we double splurged and got more wine.

We were two entirely trashed kids in our French Civilization class that afternoon. We talked. A lot. Everyone knew we were drunk. They were surprised that being that drunk made us so much better at speaking French. Even the professor. We were not in trouble.

Her family, I don't know their name, loved having an English speaker at home, so her French was a mess. They loved speaking English. She was a gonner.

The most she really learned came from our nights at bars. How to order. How to sweet-talk a bartender.

One time a bartender with snowy hair took our order for two double-Baileys.

"Non," he said. "Je ne peux pas."

Each drink would have been about $18. He refused to let kids spend that much. We had reasonably priced gin and tonics instead.

We saw "Microcosmos" one day because we wanted to sneak into a movie that had English. It was microphotography about bugs. No words at all. FML.

And then we saw "The English Patient," which we'd seen at home, with Kevin. Kevin was handsome. I had a crush on him. And he took the "speak only French" mandate very seriously. The only time in France that he broke was at that movie. Because he couldn't understand why it made her and I both wail like babies.

I saw him years later at a midnight screening of "Planet of the Apes." I regret to this day that I was too stoned to really talk to him. Even though he still had the same girlfriend. (She was there.)

But it was Phatiwe who took me to the "Planet of the Apes." And Vanessa and Jason and probably Dan.

I got home from a long weekend in Mexico (yeah, yeah) and they handed me a joint. Smoke this, and we have a surprise for you... I did what they said. MONKEY SPACE MOVIE. BOTH FAVORITE THINGS.

I had good friends.

Why are you reading this. Why this random walk down memory lane.

Something has been brewing in my head. Some mix of love and loss, locked deeply down in my heart and soul inside the dark core of sorrow that I harbor still. Where alive Phatiwe lived. Where dead Phatiwe now lives.

For a long time her absence and what it meant to me was a non-thing. But that's not the case now. I don't know what awoke that sorrow. Perhaps a final, hesitant need to let it go. I started talking about her again recently. And it feels like an imposition. Remember her. Remember my sorrow. Feel my ache. MY PAIN. GOD DAMN IT.

But I can't do it that way. Not anymore.

Her absolute and complete and earnest love of every part of me both proves to me that it is true and convinces me that it is not possible that this thing will ever happen again. That someone will love me so very much. Who I love like a sister. Who doesn't have the burden of being a sister.

"Your person" my aunt said to me, one cold night on the Upper East Side when she came to talk, and we hadn't had time, so she made time.

My person who loved me that way. Who I could say anything to. Any crazy, awful, bloody thing to. And she would ash her cigarette, look and me and say, "It's ok."

Monday, July 08, 2013


We all have the things -- those things -- that haunt our memories. That shaped us and made us and tore us to pieces, sometimes literally, that left us the men and women we are sitting here, looking at these screens.

For decades, my ghost had haunted me. A dark, stark memory. Bright as the sun. As soul-sucking as a black hole. A frozen movie, each frame crystalline, a solid entity on permanent replay.  

The thing I did. 

The thing I did to everyone. 

And I lived with that thing for almost 29 years. A whirlwind of a girl in a state of permanent panic. A runaway from today. A tornado that refused to touch down, because to touch down would be to see it again. And again. And again. And to be trapped in it.

What I didn't realize was that refusing to touch down was what gave it its life. The trap was the spiral. The swirling tornado. 

Once it hits the Earth, it loses its fury. It wrecks its havoc. But then, then... it disappears. It spins itself out. 

Looking the thing in the eye. Stopping and staring and screaming. 

You take its power back. 

You know. You see. You forgive the little you. The storm swirls. But then, quiet.

And for the first time in your life, you are a grown woman, alive, thriving, and looking at the ghost of your life and wondering how you managed to be such a firecracker while living inside that tornado.

And amazed at the delicious, contended stillness that exists when it finally, finally dies.

No one around you can understand, the purgatory you put yourself in. Because you were a too-smart-kid, who believed *that thing* happened because of *you*. Who was determined to carry the weight of the world, crumbling and seething. Not at those who blamed themselves. No. What did they do? You did this, child. 

And forever is a long, long time. 

Blame circled upon blame. Fault upon fault. Until the humans could no longer stand the weight of their own reasoning. The things they did. The things they did not do. The simple truth was nothing any of them saw. Parts moved around parts. Matter slipped past matter. Atoms and electrons bound, tearing apart the bonds of others. 

A child stood, screaming, her body in parts. She saw her shadow, and saw it was different, and knew enough at seven to keep facing forward. Whatever lay behind was a thing she would not want to see. 

I remember that moment. Looking down and seeing my hairless shadow, freezing cold on a hot July day, July 8, 1984. Feeling my blood pour over my body and knowing even in that moment of shock that to turn around... No. Stop here, let them help you. You did this, laying down in that go-cart, letting your hair get caught... But don't, for the love of God, look at it. Look down. Look at that shadow.

To this day, I see it every time I pass that street. My blad, scalp-less shadow, stark in the noon-day sun. 

I am older today than everyone who was there. (Except maybe one, but I don't know...) 

I am sure in that moment, none of them believed that would be the case. 

I was sure, in those first minutes, that I was dying. A stark moment in anyone's life. I'm not even sure I knew what dying meant. But I thought it was happening to me. But I asked my mother.

I saw something of my reflection in her glasses. Her hair. Her aqua shirt. It said "Chic." My blue and pink striped shirt, which was cut off me and gone forever. Riding in the van. Stopping at the toll and my father telling them about us. We raced on. At the hospital, I remember a cooler. I remember a needle in my thigh. I remember my head being wrapped. 

I remember an ambulance.

I remember the faces of doctors hovering over me once I got to Philadelphia. The hospital there. Where I would spend weeks. I remember hallucinating. I remember waking up so very, very thirsty and sucking on lemon swabs. 

I remember my nurse, Judy. I remember the gifts. I remember the burn of the stitches being pulled from my ankle, where they took a vein. 

But those were in later weeks. Weeks where I watched Mary Lou Retton in the Olympics from a couch.  I imagined a doctor pulling an IV out of my arm, but we were in a trailer in my grandmother's driveway, in my mind. Whatever they gave me made me unable to tell real from dream.

My friends in college never learned what happened to me until I tried a whippit. 

Nitrus Oxide. The same feeling that you feel slipping under anesthesia. 

I huffed a whipped cream can at a party at Yale. I started sobbing. 

I learned I probably had already had way stronger drugs than any of my friends would ever play with. So I was never even curious. Anything they tried I was sure, after that whipped cream, was not going to be a fun thing. 

Those kinds of things are only fun when you don't need them. 

Dan took one of Phatiwe's Percocets once. She thought he was in pain. He thought it was fun. She didn't really get why that was. 

And so it goes. 

It has been ten years, a little more, since the first time I was brave enough to write about this. 

It's graphic. It's raw. It's a first draft that was written in a little bit of a haze. But I guess that kind of thing is hard to edit. 

It was published by the school magazine in 2002. You can read it here

I confess, I didn't read it again. 

I'm pretty sure I know what it says.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On the eve of my 36th birthday...

A birthday. A special thing. Another year you managed to live through. To see each day play out. To eat and drink and touch and taste and smell. And to not die.

Any one of those moments? You were never guaranteed them. I was not guaranteed them. I got them because of science. Because of fastidious humans caring if other humans survived, and because of my miraculous parents, who took my broken self and helped build her back into a regular-ish person.

I could have easily not had this birthday. I could have died when I was seven years old and my scalp was ripped from my body. But I did not. Humpty Jen was put back together again. So many people worked so hard to make sure that one day, one day... that little girl could have a very, very ordinary 36th birthday.

I wish I could hug them all right now. Show them that yes. Yes, your hard work and terrible days and that awful day you put that little girl back together mattered. What you did? It made someone else have a long, happy life full of pop culture news, fancy drinks, birthday parties, planting flowers with nieces and Jon Snow bobbleheads.

Your work mattered. It made me able to be.

Not every consequence is... real serious. Sometimes our best stories begin with a mishap. Something awry. Missed connections.

But the fact that I get them is special to me. I feel sorry for the people I know, mostly other women, who are ashamed or shy about their birthdays. "I am older," they think. "I have not had XYZ happen yet... I lose."

Nope. You have those thoughts? You win. You win over all those women who never got to see 36. For Phatiwe, who never will see 36. To pray that Diana and Sophie see 36, and honor their survival and still have a wonderful day.

Like I did. Celebrating with so many of my friends. Because we are all here to share it.

Which is the real gift.

The alternative to getting another year older is NOT getting another year older.

A thought some people I loved very much will never get to even consider. Because their stories ended.

Mine has not. And that?

Anything is possible.

I will wake up tomorrow with plans, but the world will unravel around me. Maybe it will go as I hoped. Maybe it will go as I planned. Maybe it will be a storm of surprises.

Or maybe it will all end.

But it probably won't. I pray it won't.  My birthday came again. Another year. Another toast. Another day among the other people I love.

I win.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Ten Years Later

I had written so many beginnings in my head, but then I decided to begin with the photograph. A photo I'd taken on real film, with a real camera. I was in graduate school. It was homework.

Now, about a dozen years later, eleven or twelve years and then some after that Thanksgiving, 2001 or 2002, it is the photograph that always comes to mind when I think of my grandfather. The only one I knew.

He was one of those people who made you realize that you were loved unconditionally, and that people would go to silly lengths to convince you to avoid something if they loved you.

Because you were so precious to them, they resorted to dirty tricks.

That next Christmas, in 2002, I was going to India. Maybe it was this Thanksgiving -- or was it the one after? -- when he chased me around the house with a National Geographic magazine, showing me photos of India in drought. There was no water there! You cannot go!

It was too far. Too risky.

I went. But that is another story. Now, a decade later, looking back on that day, being irritated and charmed by the man with the National Geographic magazine, showing the dark side of the dirty place I was about to visit... I saw how very much he loved me. How scary it was for others, me traveling to the other side of the Earth with a strange family for a strange party. A several-day wedding for my Indian friend from college.

I think I was the only one of my grandfather's grandchildren he saw graduate from college. The only other option was Julie's. But I honestly can't remember if he came to Boston for that. I can't. But I remember him coming to Dartmouth. I remember him coming and seeing me sing at the Lone Pine Tavern the night before graduation. I remember him and my grandmother, BeeBop (yeah, yeah...) after the ceremony. It was an unusually hot June day in New Hampshire. We were all uncomfortable, but Grandpop, by then, was a little bit delicate. The heat and standing for so long.

I remember lunch afterward at Murphy's. I remember packing their cars with my things. I remember driving home to New Jersey with Vanessa and Sarah, being told at a New Jersey rest stop that I had almost no oil in my car... I remember my grandparents, seeing me graduate from my Ivy League school. I was so proud of myself. I hoped they were proud of me.

I spent the summer doing that delightful, entitled thing -- backpacking around Europe. They helped me pay for my Eurail pass. He told me after that he thought I'd be a musician. But if I was taking photographs -- the pie -- he thought I'd be a wonderful photographer. Or a writer! They weren't sure but he was sure I'd be wonderful at whatever I did.

You know, that pie. That pie was the best kind of pie. Flaky crust, creamy strawberries, perfectly sweet and then a fluffy, buttery whipped cream top. Every holiday, one came out, and he teased me. Pretended he was about to give me the tiniest of tiny pieces. And I would howl in protest. Like some kind of crazed animal-child. Pie discrimination against the young! I am owed my fair share of this pie! I was very invested in pie justice. I expected the fight. It became ritual.

He was just teasing, but of course I never knew that.

Now, as more of a grown up than I was that hot day in Hanover, I can see my own father taunting my nieces just a little bit. To see their adorable, earnest, horrified reactions to NOT HAVING PIE! The most terrible of things to a person who lives in just-this-moment. I remember my father pretending Santa had not come.

That moment of confused fear of denial made our happiness all that more exuberant. Who wouldn't have teased us first? Pretended there was a chance you weren't going to share that pie.

Because one day, you, that man who started off with nothing is sitting in front of his granddaughter, the Ivy League graduate, with her camera for her graduate school journalism class, taking a photograph of you with that pie. That pie that you pretended to fight over with her for all those years. And you smile.

And in the window, she catches the reflection of your family.

And a decade after you are gone, she can still remember those silly pie fights, more than any other thing that ever happened, and how she'd always win. Because you let her.

I remember birthdays, and weddings and reunions. I remember Easter egg hunts. I remember watching John Wayne movies. I remember visiting all the time. I remember, like a photograph, the white of my grandfather's hair standing on the Dartmouth campus.

I remember the months of false alarms, when in my youth and confusion I got scared and angry, not knowing when I was finally allowed to freak out. To let go. I remember the last time I saw him alive. He would not open his eyes. I cried. He was done. I remember a time when we watched a show at the house in the mountains about a promising new cancer treatment idea, and having a tiny bit of hope.

I don't know if those last memories I have were all my own, or if I conflated them with stories from other people. The medical bed in his bedroom. Refusing to open his eyes. His mouth. Choosing the time of the end.

I forget that a lot. I wouldn't have cried writing this, most likely, if I hadn't let myself remember that.

Because the thing that I remember first. Every time. Is the man waving the National Geographic magazine at the girl who he feared would be thirsty, in a world where he couldn't even pretend to deny her a slice of pie.